Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Stroganoff

As much as I like to be a culinary purist, as much as I extol the virtues of making food from scratch and how spiritual the act of cooking can be, I'm pretty terrible when it comes to following recipes. The fact of the matter is that I don't let missing ingredients stop me from trying a recipe. I also substitute at will. I'm one of those annoying people you real purists complain about when you read recipe reviews on FoodTV.com and see that somebody didn't have all 6 different types of chiles for a Bobby Flay recipe but gosh darned it tried it with only one and left a review about how it came out great anyways.

Honestly, I don't know what the original recipe for stroganoff calls for. Passed down through the generations, I'm sure there's a romantic story somewhere, but for the life of me, I don't know it. I imagine the original recipe for beef stroganoff calls for beef, which makes me very clever, then some sort of starch, and a sauce. Which of course is the basic recipe for about a thousand different dishes. So when I make my stroganoff, I try to make a comforting meal that doesn't use a whole lot of meat. Meat-stretching is frugal (and snigger-worthy). The key is to build flavor at every opportunity.

Fakers' Stroganoff
serves 2
(Click here for printable recipe.)

1/4 lb lean beef, sliced against the grain 1/4" thick and into 1" pieces
3 T soy sauce
1 T olive oil
1/3 onion, diced fine
1 T flour
1 clove garlic, toasted and minced or pressed
(Put the whole unpeeled clove into a dry hot pan and cook on each side until the skin colors. This is similar to roasting, but doesn't taste quite as heavenly or take as long. Call it Fakers' Roasted Garlic, if you will. Resist the urge to turn the clove with your fingers. You run the risk of burning yourself, and when this happens your fingertip will stick to the pan and you'll have an awkward story to tell your spouse about why you can't wash your hands properly. Not that I would know.)
4 ice cubes of magic brown soup stock and 3 ice cubes of mushroom juice (or 1-2 cups of beef broth, chicken broth, vegetable broth or beer)
4 ounces pasta, such as farfalle, egg noodles, broken-fettucine, cooked al dente in salted water (and buttered, to keep from sticking to itself if it is ready before the sauce)
Milk (optional)
Leftover sauteed mushrooms because they were going bad and you only had a handful left (completely optional)
Sour cream, for serving

1. Marinate the meat in the soy sauce while you prep the rest of your ingredients. Thanks to America's Test Kitchen, I know that soy sauce helps bring out a mushroom-y flavor, even in Mediterranean dishes. (Now, if you find the smell of the soy so inspiring, as long as you haven't cooked the pasta yet there is still time to change directions and rock a beef stir-fry. Just throwing it out there.)

2. Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the meat in two batches. You want a good, fast sear, so turn up your ventilation fan and make sure the pan is hot. If we don't get a good sear, the meat will still be fine, but it's that Maillard reaction that adds so much flavor to the meat and the sauce and helps make the whole meal more satisfying. At the same time, remember that you don't want to serve beef jerky, so if you blew it and the pan wasn't hot enough and the meat juice bubbled up and steamed, don't go overboard trying to get a good browning. At this point, you may as well pull the meat out before you overcook it, then let the juices in the pan brown.

3. Pull the meat out and reserve. Add another dash of olive oil to the pan and turn the heat down. Saute the diced onions, scraping up the browned bits in the bottom of the pan.

4. When onions begin to color, sprinkle in your flour. Mix to combine and add more oil if necessary. When making a roux, it's helpful to me to remember that I'm trying to coat each speck of flour with oil so that I can cook it. Depending on how much fat was in your meat and how tightly you packed the spoon of flour, you may need more or less oil. You want to see it bubble. Cook and stir this for at least a minute, maybe two, until you see the flour start to color.

5. If you are well-prepared with your mise en place, you will have your magical brothy ice cubes or stock ready (and even better, defrosted). If this is the case, drop them in and start whisking. If not, or if you fear you are overcooking your roux--which can be hard to spot if your drippings have stuck to the bottom like in the photo above--you can hit the mix with a good glug of milk and whisk. This will stop the cooking and give you a creamy flavor while you melt your ice cubes. I generally don't add milk unless A) I've blown the mise en place, or B) I've oversalted the sauce. Which means that I use milk quite often in my stroganoffs. Moving on!

Keep whisking.

Keeeep whisking.

Oh, yeah baby.

6. Add the meat and mushrooms (if using) and heat through.

7. Add the pasta to the pan and mix to combine. Plate onto warm plates and add a dollop of sour cream. Congratulate yourself: you've just faked stroganoff!

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